In one moment, the blaze-faced chestnut filly was sweetly taking a mint from the hand of her doting owner Thursday morning. The next, she was pinning her ears flat against her head and lunging at an innocent, neighboring horse who was just trying to walk the shedrow.
“She’s ready to go back,” Carolyn Gray said of Eclipse Award finalist I’m a Chatterbox, the filly she and her husband, Fletcher, have raised since birth. “You can tell right there.”
The tough exterior I’m a Chatterbox shows to her competition has served her well. It has driven the daughter of Munnings to five wins in 11 starts, a Grade I triumph and $1,304,614 in earnings. It also allowed her to stand up to the grind of facing nearly every major test in her division last season as she recorded eight starts from January to October.
The toll of that campaign showed up during her eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Keeneland last fall — the only time in 2015 she finished worse than third. She will return to the Lexington track Friday as the 3-5 morning-line favorite for her season debut in the Grade III, $100,000 Hilliard Lyons Doubledogdare Stakes. And if there is one thing trainer Larry Jones can guarantee, it’s that the filly is aching to get back to her racetrack routine.
“She’s sitting on ready to go,” Jones said. “If she’s not ready, then she’s fibbing me.”
The manner in which I’m a Chatterbox has dragged Jones around the track in recent weeks has told the veteran horseman he needed to find a race for her pronto. After giving her a freshening following her Breeders’ Cup outing, the 1 1/16 -mile Doubledogdare will offer a stern first-out test with graded stakes winner Ahh Chocolate and stakes winner White Clover in the nine-horse field.
Though she lost the Eclipse Award balloting for champion 3-year-old filly to Stellar Wind, I’m a Chatterbox was arguably the most consistent member of her class in 2015. She ran exclusively in stakes company all last season, scoring wins in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra and Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, running third in the Kentucky Oaks and ultimately getting her elusive Grade I triumph in the Cotillion Stakes last September after being disqualified from the victory in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.
I wanted to prove to myself that running in the Breeders’ Cup, it wasn’t wrong. She does like Keeneland. This is a good spot.
Larry Jones, trainer of I’m a Chatterbox
“We were letting her bring herself back (after the layoff),” Jones said. “We weren’t in a hurry. We really weren’t trying to get ready for any particular race. You could tell she was getting ready. And … I wanted to prove to myself that running in the Breeders’ Cup, it wasn’t wrong. She does like Keeneland. This is a good spot.”
Her on-track record could have allowed the Grays to send her to the breeding shed this season to capitalize on the mating they devised five years earlier. Even after her disappointing Breeders’ Cup effort, however, the idea of not bringing back I’m a Chatterbox was never discussed.
As commercial breeders, the Grays only kept their lively chestnut girl when she failed to meet her reserve at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. So long as she keeps showing them she’s ready to flaunt her game face, they’re going to have fun letting her.
“Larry always felt like she would have a good 4-year-old campaign,” said Carolyn Gray. “We thought it had been racing luck (that affected her) in the Breeders’ Cup and she had had a long campaign. She ran all year long and you know when you think about that … it was something where she just needed a break and freshening up. She got out and put her head down and ate grass for 45 days and loved it.
“We don’t feel she has anything she absolutely has to prove this year but ... I think she’ll have a strong season if everything goes as Larry thinks and plans. She loves her job. That’s the part that we like so much. She loves her job and you can tell she is excited about going to the track and doing her work.”
What: $100,000, Grade III race for fillies and mares 4 and older
Where: Keeneland Race Course
Post time: 5:30 p.m.
Distance: 1 1/16 miles
Favorite: I’m a Chatterbox (3-5)